Arabs, Muslims Not the Same, Lebanese Priest Says
April 19, 2004 3:29 PM
Father Labib Kobti is quick to offer caution to those who might view the words “Arab” and “Muslim” as synonymous.
“People come up to me and ask, ‘Oh, Father Labib, when did you convert to Christianity from Islam?’ But we were Arabs before Islam,” said Kobti, a native of Lebanon and pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in San Francisco.
“Marrying the words Muslim and Arab is very wrong, and as a Christian it’s offensive. I’m not a Muslim. I’ve always been Christian,” he said.
Kobti spoke about the presence of Arab Christians in the Middle East Monday during a discussion hosted by the Newman Club and Catholic Student Association at SF State in the Cesar Chavez Student Center.
The history of Arab Christians was a leading topic on his agenda, and Kobti was quick to establish the Arab presence in Christianity, a presence that reaches back 2000 years.
“Arabs were the first Christians in the world, back to the fist century,” Kobti said. “We weren’t Muslim (until) the seventh century.” He also mentioned three Catholic popes in the first five centuries who were Arab and that the festival of Easter was started by Nile Christians.
A lawyer by trade, Kobti runs the Al-Bushra Web site. He said the site promotes justice and peace in the Middle East, offers a world-view order and details the history of U.S. policy in the region.
He was critical of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Kobti said the United States didn’t take into the consideration the varying faiths and ethnicities in Iraq before attempting to impose democracy on a country made up of Sunni, Shia, Kurdish Muslims and Caldean Christians who were all, “used to living under Saddam’s iron fist.”
“Caldean’s are in a bad situation because of U.S. involvement,” Kobti said, “and they were Iraqis for 2,000 years. We’re in contact with their bishops, and they’re afraid. They don’t know what the future holds.”
Caldean Christians are made up of members of the Catholic and Assyrian Orthodox churches.
“We (Christians) had been on good terms with Muslims before the United States and Britain started putting their fingers in,” Kobti said. “The Middle East sees the West as Christian, and now the Muslims see Middle East Christians as in-league with the United States and Britain. Our beloved country didn’t know what it was getting itself into. They didn’t take time to find out.”
He was also highly critical of Evangelical Christians who have their sights set on conversions in the Middle East without showing regard for everyday people and their deep-rooted beliefs.
"(Arab Christians) have freedom," Kobti said, "and our problems are not with the ordinary Jews, ordinary Muslims, it's with the fanatics. The problem is with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who go on TV saying they want to send 2,000 missionaries to the Middle East to convert (Muslims). I mean, that's sick."
During his lecture, which was open to questions at any time, Kobti spoke about the diminishing populations of Arab Christians in the Middle East. According to Kobti, the Christian population in Israel/Palestine has fallen from 25 percent to 1.8 percent since the end of World War I, and in Lebanon from 53 percent to 20 percent during the same time frame.
He cited two reasons for the trend: emigration to South America and the United States due to lack of jobs in their homeland (which he attributes to U.S. policy over the Israel-Palestine conflict), and also to the exploding Arab Muslim population in the Middle East.
St. Thomas More church offers a Sunday service in Arabic to accommodate Arab-speaking Christians. He said 95 percent of one former village in Palestine attends the church. He also said family members of recently assassinated Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi attend the church.
Newman Club member Erika Castro said she was hopeful more events like today’s discussion with Kobti can take place in the future.
“We’re looking forward to getting more of the community involved not just the Catholic community,” Castro said. “We’d like to get the whole campus involved in (discussing) these issues.
“Being such a diverse university, we need to speak about these sort of things. We need to understand more of each other and learn more about every culture.”
“It’s important to educate the students the way that they want to know” Kobti said. “In a university, the young adults want to know. So such discussions are important when you answer . . . what they want to know.
“Many times you don’t read this in books, you don’t see this on the television. It’s good to have different people come and speak up, especially honest people who have no political agendas.”
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